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The latest news on Syria from Business Insider

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    Turkey Soldiers Army Tank

    ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey is asking allies including the United States to take part in a joint ground operation in Syria, as a Moscow-backed government advance nears its borders, raising the possibility of direct confrontation between the NATO member and Russia.

    A large-scale joint ground operation is still unlikely: Washington has ruled out a major offensive. But the request shows how swiftly a Russian-backed advance in recent weeks has transformed a conflict that has drawn in most regional and global powers.

    The offensive, supported by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias as well as Russian air strikes, has brought the Syrian army to within 25 km (15 miles) of Turkey's frontier. Kurdish fighters regarded by Turkey as hostile insurgents have also exploited the collapse of positions held by other rebel groups to seize ground and extend their presence along the border.

    The advances have increased the risk of a military confrontation between Russia and Turkey. Turkish artillery returned fire into Syria for a fourth straight day on Tuesday, military sources said, targeting the Kurdish YPG militia which Ankara says is being backed by Moscow.

    "We want a ground operation. If there is a consensus, Turkey will take part. Without a ground operation it is impossible to stop this war," a Turkish official told reporters at a briefing in Istanbul.

    "Turkey is not going to have a unilateral ground operation ... We are discussing this with allies," the official said, declining to be named in order to speak more freely.

    Kurdish members of the Self-Defense Forces stand near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian city of al-Derbasiyah during a protest against the operations launched in Turkey by government security forces against the Kurds, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    Turkey on Monday accused Russia of an "obvious war crime" after missile attacks in northern Syria killed scores of people, and warned the YPG it would face the "harshest reaction" if it tried to capture a town near the Turkish border.

    Russian air support for the Syrian government offensive has transformed the balance of power in the 5-year-old war in the past three weeks.

    World powers meeting in Munich last week agreed to a pause in the fighting, but that is not set to begin until the end of this week and was not signed by the warring Syrian parties. In the meanwhile, Damascus says its objectives are to recapture Aleppo, Syria's biggest city before the war, and seal off the border with Turkey that has served as the main supply route into rebel held territory for years.

    Those would be the government's biggest victories of the war so far and probably end rebel hopes of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad by force, the objective they have sought since 2011 with the encouragement of the West, Arab states and Turkey.

    With hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in area the government aims to seize, Turkey and others accuse Moscow of deliberately firing on civilian targets such as hospitals to force residents to flee and depopulate the territory.

    ypg

    Almost 50 civilians were killed when missiles hit at least five medical facilities and two schools in rebel-held areas of Syria on Monday, according to the United Nations, which called the attacks a blatant violation of international law.

    At least 14 were killed in the northern town of Azaz, the last rebel stronghold before the border with Turkey. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said a Russian missile was responsible and vowed that Turkey would not let Azaz fall into YPG hands.

    Moscow on Tuesday strongly rejected Turkish accusations that it had committed a war crime after the missile strikes.

    "We categorically do not accept such statements, the more so as every time those making these statements are unable to prove their unfounded accusations in any way," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

    "Our relations (with Turkey) are in a deep crisis. Russia regrets this. We are not the initiators of this."

    DOUBTS OVER GROUND TROOPS

    The advances by the YPG risk creating friction between Turkey and its allies, including the United States.

    Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish militia as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey's southeast.

    "The PYD has become the legionnaire, the paid soldiers of Russia's regional plans and made it a priority to harm Turkey," Davutoglu told his ruling AK Party at a meeting in parliament on Tuesday.

    But the United States sees the YPG as one of few effective ground forces fighting radical Islamic State militants in Syria, and has lent the group military support. Washington has so far ruled out sending its own ground troops into Syria, apart from small numbers of special forces.

    ypgSunni Arab Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said this month they were ready to send ground forces as part of an international coalition against Islamic State, providing Washington takes the lead.

    But Turkey's focus on the threat from the YPG means it cannot necessarily count on such support from NATO, which, while reluctant to pressure Ankara in public, is working behind closed doors to discourage it from targeting the Kurds and from an escalation with Russia.

    "The Kurds are part of the conflict in Syria, but also in Iraq, and therefore they should also be part of the solution," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.

    German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged both Russia and Turkey to calm hostilities.

    "It is my clear expectation that Moscow and Ankara adhere, in their military and political approach, to the commitments made in Munich, and that we see a measurable reduction in military activities even before final agreement on a ceasefire," he said in a statement on Tuesday.

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    Kurdish People's Protection Units syria

    Amid the chaos in northern Syria in recent months, several themes have emerged.

    The first is that Islamic State has been spared from intensified Russian airstrikes and advances by pro-regime forces. The second, and potentially more important development, is that one of the war’s least visible players – the Kurds – have done more than anyone else to carve out a new reality.

    As Lebanese Hezbollah, militias from Iraq, and Syrian troops – all led by Iran – have inched their way around the top of Aleppo, the Kurdish YPG, supported by Russian air cover, has been making strident moves towards areas they have avoided throughout the conflict.

    Over the weekend, the YPG moved towards two Syrian towns between the Turkish border and the almost besieged Aleppo, after earlier seizing an airbase that had been held by the opposition. Throughout the war, the YPG had been viewed warily by the opposition, and given a wide berth by the regime.

    Now, though, its moves have sharply expanded a footprint in the north, alarming rebels who have been distracted by other foes, and Turkey, which had vowed never to let the Kurds dominate its border with Syria.

    The Kurds are ascendant, and the Turks are enraged. Ankara sees YPG militants, who are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), as vying to own areas they have never before controlled, to establish a foothold from Irfin in Syria’s north-west to the Iraqi border, a frontier dominated for decades by Arabs.

    Helping the YPG do that are the same Russian jets that are steadily destroying Turkish-supported rebel groups, whose three-year push to oust Bashar al-Assad increasingly looks lost.

    ypg

    Turkey insists that an emboldened YPG also boosts the PKK, against whose insurgency it has been fighting for more than 40 years. It rejects both groups’ insistence that they want more autonomy, not independence. Instead, Ankara views Kurdish aspirations as a graver subversive threat than Isis.

    Over the past six months, the number of airstrikes it has launched against the Kurds has dwarfed those it has aimed at a terror group that its allies see as the most formidable threat to global security.

    Further complicating things is that the US, which has largely confined its role in Syria to fighting Isis, has used the YPG as a proxy ground force to push the terror group from part of the north-west and edge towards its stronghold of Raqqa. US jets had in late 2014 defended the Kurdish city of Kobane from an extensive assault by Isis. Ever since, a relationship has firmed between both sides, much to the chagrin of Turkey, a US ally and Nato member.

    Of all the mini-wars being fought in the muddy mess of the north, none is more likely to transform a series of proxy conflicts into a hot war than Turkey’s stance towards Syria’s manoeuvring Kurds and the Russians expediently backing them. Moscow has shown it knows how to needle Ankara. It knows the Kurds are Turkey’s weak spot. However, the dangers of missteps in the small pocket of the Syrian border that remains out of Kurdish control are very real.

    A Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter walks near residents who had fled Tel Abyad, as they re-enter Syria from Turkey after the YPG took control of the area, at Tel Abyad town, Raqqa governorate, Syria, June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    The same strip is the last remaining supply line to battered rebel groups and lifeline to refugees fleeing the fighting. What becomes of Turkey’s war will be determined here. So far, it has watched on angrily as its support for the opposition is whittled away by Russian jets flying high above the echo chamber of global diplomacy that has collectively failed to stop the war.

    Turkish shelling of YPG positions over the past three days has signalled that worse will follow if its advances continue. Russian airstrikes on the border town of Azaz– the main gateway for refugees and Turkish supplies – also up the ante.

    All sides sense that the war may be entering a decisive phase – possibly a miscalculation in a conflict that now has so many feed points. The temptation to force rivals’ hands has never been greater. Nor have the risks.

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    syria russia bomb

    While Russian fighter planes pound rebel positions on the battlefield in Syria, Russian military strategists are playing a far more subtle role in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

    Several sources - on both sides of the battle lines - have told Reuters in interviews conducted over the past two months that Russian advisers have been involved in drawing up plans to secure Damascus, Assad's seat of power.

    Those interviewed by Reuters, including non-Syrian military officials fighting alongside Assad's forces, said Russia's plans to buttress Damascus involve weakening rebel forces in the south of the country between the capital and Jordan. The aim is to reduce the rebels' chances of launching a major offensive.

    The Russian Defense Ministry did not respond to written questions for this article. Russia has said it has no ground troops in Syria beyond those protecting its bases. Russia does concede it has trainers and advisers on the ground, but only in an educational and advisory capacity.Russia's influence in military planning is already evident, rebel fighters and the non-Syrian military officials say.

    They say Russian experts played a major role in a Syrianarmy offensive at the turn of the year in the western coastal province of Latakia, home to the Alawite population of which Assad is part.

    That offensive helped pave the way for the Syrian army to push toward the Turkish border, cutting the insurgents' supply lines from Turkey.

    Degrees of involvement

    syria iraq isis map syraqisismap feb 10 oir

    The extent of Russian involvement on the battlefield is disputed, however.

    Two military officials, neither of them Syrian but both fighting alongside the Syrian army, said Russian officers and military experts had helped in the planning and directed the offensive in Latakia.

    According to their account, the Russians were in charge of artillery fire and provided artillery cover, not just air strikes. "The coast battle was theirs," said one of the sources.

    A Syrian military source, speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters in Damascus last week, said the Russians were partners, but he denied they had a leadership role.

    "The Russian role in participation, in planning and executing military operations is being reinforced all the time. It is participation, not management," said the source.

    A man sprays water on an ambulance at a site hit by what activists said were three consecutive air strikes carried out by the Russian air force, the last which hit this vehicle, in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

    "The Russians take part in the ground and air planning, but at the end, the Syrian officers are the ones who know the land, the fronts, the geography better."

    Insurgents interviewed by Reuters, including a local commander from the Ahrar al-Sham group, also said that Russian troops took part in the fighting.

    Moscow says that its main goal in Syria is to target hardline Islamist groups which pose a global threat, including to Russia.

    Islamic State commander Abu Omar al-Shishani is a Chechen. He is believed to be leading thousands of fighters most of them from Chechnya and Central Asia.

    Ceasefires

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 13, 2016.       REUTERS/Michael Dalder

    Pro-government sources say the Russian rolehas expanded to include facilitating local ceasefires in rebel-held areas around Damascus, with the aim of creating a secure buffer around the capital.Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar described the process as purelySyrian even if there had at times been Russian help.

    "The truth is that since the presence of the Russians onSyrian land, they can play the role of mediator in some areas," he said at his offices in Damascus. "The Russians make contact (with militants) when they can, of course - in Douma and other areas," he said, in reference to an area east of Damascus."Sometimes it is the militants who request mediation by the Russians," he said.

    Those wishing to relocate wanted guarantees of safe passage to rebel strongholds, and those wishing to stay wanted to be sure they wouldn't be killed later on, he said.According to the non-Syrian sources interviewed by Reuters, Russian advisers orchestrated two deals in which hardline Islamist fighters were evacuated from the south toward areas their groups control in the northern and central provinces.

    One of the non-Syrian military sources said the Russians worked "in the shadows" to facilitate the ceasefire deals. In some cases the Russians operated as guarantors for the deals.

    Civil defence members search for survivors after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman IsmailDozens of cars left southern towns of Syria in December carrying fighters from Nusra Front with their families to the northern province of Idlib which is under control of an alliance of rebels including Nusra Front.Weeks later a convoy left Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk camp areas near Damascus  carrying fighters and families from Islamic State to the group’s stronghold of Raqqa.

    A second source who was informed of the deals said the fighters were given safe passage. The aim was to empty these areas of hardline Islamists so clearing the way for the government to strike deals with the remaining rebels.

    "The Russians want all the battles to be focused in the north, they want the south and Damascus and the coastal line all neutralized. Ultimately they are working toward achieving a wider political solution," said the source.

    The Syrian government and its allies accuse the opposition and the insurgents of blocking efforts to end the fighting and reach a political deal.

    (Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Damascus, Reuters reporters in Moscow; editing by Janet McBride)

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    putin

    MOSCOW (Reuters) — The Kremlin strongly rejected on Tuesday accusations by Turkey that Russia committed a war crime in Syria after missile attacks killed scores of people a day earlier, hitting several medical facilities and schools.

    "We categorically do not accept such statements, the more so as every time those making these statements are unable to prove their unfounded accusations in any way," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a conference call.

    On Monday close to 50 civilians were killed and many more wounded in the bombings, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

    UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told Reutersthat Ban had described the attacks as “blatant violations of international laws.”

    Reuters reported on Monday that Turkey's foreign ministry had accused Russia of carrying out an "obvious war crime."

    At least 14 people were killed in the town of Azaz after missiles struck a school sheltering families.

    In a sperate incident missiles also struck a hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières.

    "There were at least seven deaths among the personnel and the patients, and at least eight MSF personnel have disappeared, and we don't know if they are alive," Mego Terzian, president of MSF France, told Reuters.

    The attack came just one day after US President Barack Obama called Putin and requested he call a halt to bombing moderate opposition targets in Syria.

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    Tupolev_Tu 214R

    The Tu-214R is a Russian ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) aircraft. In other words, a quite advanced spy plane.

    As we have already explained here in the past, it is a special mission aircraft equipped with all-weather radar systems and electro optical sensors that produce photo-like imagery of a large parts of the ground: these images are then used to identify and map the position of the enemy forces, even if these are camouflaged or hidden.

    The aircraft is known to carry sensor packages to perform ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) and SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) missions: the antennae of the Tu-214R can intercept the signals emitted by the enemy systems (radars, aircraft, radios, combat vehicles, mobile phones etc) so as it can build the EOB (Electronic Order of Battle) of the enemy forces: where the enemy forces are operating, what kind of equipment they are using and, by eavesdropping into their radio/phone communications, what they are doing and what will be their next move.

    The aircraft is built by KAPO (Kazan Aircraft Production Association) and flown from the company’s airfield in Kazan.

    On Feb. 15, the Tu-214R registered RA-64514, serial number 42305014, the second of the two examples of this kind of aircraft built under contract with Russia’s Ministry of Defense, flew from Kazan to Latakia airbase, Syria.

    tupolev

    With its ADS-B transponder signals broadcast in the clear and detected by Flightradar24 collecting stations, the aircraft could be tracked as it followed the eastern corridor from Russia, to the Caspian Sea and then to Syria via the Iranian and Iraqi air spaces.

    It’s not clear whether the aircraft has already been delivered to the Russian Air Force, even though it is quite weird that a developmental aircraft is deployed abroad (unless the reason is testing it at war in a real scenario…).

    While it was still under development, the same Tu-214R aircraft flew what appeared to be an operative mission on Jun. 18, 2015, when it flew from Kazan to Crimea and back, closely following the border between Russia and Ukraine, most probably testing some of its sensors against real targets.

    Previously, the aircraft was spotted flying near Crimea.Interestingly, while over the Caspian Sea, approaching the Iranian airspace, the Tu-214R performed a couple of 360° turns at 33.000 feet (weird, while en route): maybe it was working on the diplomatic clearance to enter Iran?

    SEE ALSO: Close to 50 dead from suspected Russian airstrikes on hospitals and a school in rebel-held Syria

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    President Bashar al-Assad addresses his supporters at a school in an undisclosed location during an event to commemorate Syria's Martyrs' Day May 6, 2015 in this handout provided by SANA.  REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters

    Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Monday any ceasefiredid not mean each side had to stop using weapons, and nobody was capable of securing the conditions for one within a week.

    "Regarding a ceasefire, a halt to operations, if it happened, it doesn't mean that each party will stop using weapons," Assad said in Damascus in televised comments.

    "A ceasefire means in the first place halting the terrorists from strengthening their positions. Movement of weapons, equipment or terrorists, or fortification of positions, will not be allowed," he said.

    World powers agreed in Munich on Friday to a "cessation of hostilities", scheduled to start a week later, but Syrian army offensives across the country, backed by Russian air strikes, continue unabated.

    He said that there were many questions before a ceasefire could happen, including defining who is a terrorist, adding that as far as the state is concerned, anyone who carried a weapon against it was a terrorist.

    "There can't be a ceasefire without a goal or a time. So far they say they want aceasefire within a week. Who is capable of gathering all these conditions and requirements within a week? Nobody," Assad said.

    "Who will talk to the terrorists? If a terrorist group rejects the ceasefire, who will hold it to account?"

    Civil defence members search for survivors after airstrikes by pro-Syrian government forces in the rebel held al-Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 14, 2016. REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail

    If the terms of ceasefire are agreed, operations must be stopped with the aim of improving the security situation in order to reach local reconciliation agreements with rebels, he said.

    Local reconciliation agreements are widely seen as a way for the state to pacify areas on its terms.

    Assad also said that any political transition in the country must be subject to the existing Syrian constitution.

    "Any transitional process, regardless of what it is, must be subject to the current constitution," he said, adding the suggestion of having "a transitional governing body" was a departure from the constitution.

    "We can only stop working with the current constitution if we agree, in dialogue, to a new one that the Syrians vote on," he said.

    (Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams)

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    israeli air force blue flag israel f-16 f 16

    According to the Polish President and the Polish Minister of Defense, Poland is going deploy a “small number of F-16 fighters” to Syria, in order to “support the observation missions in the region,” local media outlets confirmed on Feb. 15.

    Antoni Macierewicz, Polish Defense Minister had already made a statement suggesting that Poland could get involved in the operations against ISIS last Wednesday but President Duda said that “some statements may have been misinterpreted,” since no similar plans have been made and potential Syrian deployment still remains an open issue to be discussed with the NATO allies.

    Anyway, some details must have been sorted out and the Polish Vipers may soon operate in the Middle East in a “reconnaissance” (or armed overwatch) role. It’s still unclear where the aircraft will be based.

    When it comes to the reconnaissance equipment used by the Polish Fighting Falcons, the F-16 jets of the Polish Air Force use the Goodrich DB110 recce pod, allowing the carrier platform to carry out the reconnaissance task using a stand-off method, staying away from the airspace that could be potentially infested with the enemy SAMs.

    At least from some of the medium and short-range anti-aircraft fire.

    Some rumors suggest that the jets have been using the DB110 operationally already, flying close to the Kaliningrad exclave border, at a request of the Polish Military Intelligence Agency. Anyway, if the DB110 system is going to be employed then Łask AB F-16s are scheduled to make their trip to the Middle East, since Łask is the only base that has these pods in its inventory.

    Polish F-16

    The deployment of the Polish jets to Syrian region may answer a lot of questions pertaining their combat readiness.

    The Polish F-16s are capable of using the AIDEWS (Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite) for EW and self-defense. The Exelis company, who manufactures the system, approved it for being operated by the foreign users. In case of the Polish F-16 jets, the suite is embedded within the airframe, so there is no need to use additional pods. Polish Falcon uses the AN/ALQ-211(V)4 version of the system, embedded in a part of the jet placed on its “spine.” The suite features a digital Radar Warning Receiver and allows the pilot to implement high and low band jamming, enhanced in air-to-air sorties.

    According to Dziennik Zbrojny, one of the leading Polish defense outlets, quoting an interview with the Polish Deputy Minister of Defence Bartosz Kownacki published at the end of December in Wprost weekly, the Ministry doubts whether the F-16 jets will maintain the combat ready status. The doubts are tied directly to the AIDEWS system.

    Kownacki stated that “It does not matter that we are in possession of fighters, as they may be quickly neutralized since they do not have self-defense suites.” Similar doubts were expressed by us in an analogous context, when we questioned the combat readiness of the Polish F-16’s last year.

    However, since the Polish F-16s have started using the AIDEWS suite, the concerns seem to be mostly unfounded.

    As noted above, the Exelis company authorized the AIDEWS suite to be used by foreign customers, however there was a significant delay in the procurement process, since the system was supposedly acquired in May 2013.

    The pilots avoided the question, stating that the EW system never takes its final shape and it is being continuously developed, forcing the aircraft to operate with a less capable release of the suite (that is more advanced than the system used by other NATO users of the Fighting Falcon, according to some reports) until its final version (software-wise) is implemented.

    F-16 Fighting Falcons

    Thus, the combat capability of the Polish F-16s is primarily a matter of upgrading the current software.

    There are also some rumors suggesting that Poland has no air-to-ground ordnance for the F-16 jets at its disposal and speculations have been fueled by the fact that jets have never been presented with the combat armament at airshows (only inert Paveway bombs were presented publicly during the open days at the airbases even though, during the Red Flag exercise, the Polish F-16s dropped JDAMs over the Alaskan firing ranges).

    At the end of October 2015, the Polish Air Force F-16s took part in Blue Flag Exercise at Ovda airbase, near Eilat, in southern Israel, along with combat planes from US, Greece and Israel.

    SEE ALSO: Russia has just deployed its most advanced spy plane to Syria

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    Syrian refugees call for help and empty water from their flooding raft as they approach the Greek island of Lesbos, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis BehrakisThe Assad regime's Russian-aided military campaign and the onset of spring augur another mass refugee flow into the EU, and the only surefire way to stop it is by addressing the root of the crisis inside Syria.

    The recent offensive by regime and allied forces around Aleppo is pushing tens of thousands of new Syrian refugees into Turkey. Some of them have fled their homes for the first time, while others left informal camps close to the northern border before the fighting could reach them.

    For most of these refugees, Turkey is only a transit country to Europe. They have lost hope for a quick end to the conflict, and those who supported the rebellion know it would be particularly difficult to return. The European Union can therefore expect a massive new influx of Syrians in the coming months, despite Ankara's promises to keep them in Turkey.

    Big Increase In Turkey

    As of this month, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered 4.6 million Syrians in neighboring countries, against 3.3 million in January 2015. Even this considerable number underestimates the problem because not all Syrians formally apply for refugee status.

    In Jordan, for example, the government's Department of Statistics counted 1,250,000 Syrians in a recent census, nearly double the 623,000 officially registered by UNHCR (see "Jordan Reaches the Refugee Saturation Point").

    More important, UNHCR figures indicate that the vast bulk of the increased flow since 2015 is being shouldered by Turkey. The number of registered refugees actually declined in Lebanon (1,070,000 last month, down from 1,146,000 in January 2015), Jordan (623,000, down from 633,000), and Egypt (123,500, down from 138,000), while increasing a little in Iraq (245,000 against 234,000).

    These people did not return to Syria, however -- they traveled to Europe via Turkey by road, plane, or boat. As a result, Ankara's claimed number of refugees increased from 1.5 million in January 2015 to 2.5 million last month.

    To be sure, Turkey has likely exaggerated this number somewhat in order to get more help from the EU. But other official statistics understate the increase, since many of the refugees who registered in Middle Eastern countries have moved on to Europe so quickly that their original host governments have not yet removed them from their rolls.

    turkey syria refugees

    The main cause of this accelerated flow is the Russian intervention. In spring 2015, some Syrian refugees had actually begun to return to Idlib after rebel offensives led regime forces to pull out. Yet these same refugees are now fleeing the country once again -- massive bombardments have driven at least 300,000 from their homes in the past four months alone.

    Today, most of the refugees in Turkey do not want to stay there. For four years, they patiently remained in southern provinces near the border hoping to return home quickly when conditions permitted it, but the Russian-powered offensive has spurred many to abandon that hope and head for more hospitable countries in Europe (see "Why Now? The Syrian Refugee Flow to Europe," PolicyWatch 2515). Other Syrians have left relatively safe regime-controlled zones back home for economic reasons, heading straight to Europe.

    On January 1, Turkey reversed its visa-free entry policy for Syrians, effectively cutting off several legal avenues for refugees to cross the border (e.g., via plane from Beirut or via shipping lines between Tripoli and Mersin). Yet illegal passage remains a readily available option, whether by land or on cargo vessels. And plenty of these boats will no doubt attempt to carry refugees directly to European coasts.

    Another Mass Flow To Europe This Spring

    Last year, 1.5 million illegal immigrants reached the EU by various routes. More than 850,000 crossed the sea between Turkey and Greece, and another 150,000 arrived in Italy from the Libyan coast. Syrians constituted one-third of these immigrants -- as of December, the total number of Syrian asylum applicants in the EU was 897,000, up from 235,000 in only a year's time. Much of this increase began last spring, peaking at 156,000 in October.

    syrian refugee chart

    Although the Russian intervention is responsible for the sheer size of the latest spike, the numbers also show a seasonal pattern. From June to November 2014, over 10,000 asylum requests were made per month; that average decreased by half in the winter months, then increased in spring 2015 as better weather and calmer seas facilitated passage.

    The number dropped by half again last November due to weather conditions and more stringent control measures by Turkish authorities. But when spring returns, it should regain its stride -- likely helped along by a large regime offensive in northwestern Syria.

    While the migratory flow to Europe is linked to deteriorating conditions for refugees in Middle Eastern countries, the evolution of the crisis inside Syria is becoming an ever-greater factor. Continued fighting is further damaging the economic situation even in peaceful areas of the country, pushing more Syrians to leave -- particularly those in the private sector, who do not have the guaranteed salaries of state employees.

    But the largest group of refugees will be those fleeing new offensives, particularly where aerial bombardment is heaviest. This is why some Russian airstrikes have deliberately destroyed hospitals and other infrastructure -- as a means of urging civilians to flee and thus isolating the rebels.

    The Syrian army cannot attempt to retake an area if noncombatants are present en masse; such operations would cause heavy civilian losses that could exacerbate international condemnation and further alienate the population. An effective counterinsurgency policy therefore requires encircling such areas and waiting for civilians to leave (see PolicyWatch 2554, "The Battle of Aleppo Is the Center of the Syrian Chessboard").

    One Million Refugees To The EU In 2016?

    Over the coming year, more than two million people could be displaced by fighting in northwestern Syria -- specifically the rebel-held portions of Idlib province and western Aleppo province, and the Islamic State's territories in eastern Aleppo province. The drastic increase in Turkey's refugee numbers since September is a major indicator of where many of these refugees will head.

    Therefore, unless a major geopolitical shift changes the prevailing situation inside Syria, Europe has to prepare itself to welcome as many as a million new refugees in 2016. This estimate is extrapolated from several factors: the location of the populations most under threat from new regime offensives, their most likely routes of escape, the past migration patterns seen under similar conditions, and the recent trend of refugees leaving Turkey for the EU.

    syrian refugee map

    Part of the reason for this increase is that refugees who have already made it to Europe tend to serve as bridgeheads for others still in Syria or neighboring countries, providing information and money to family members and friends seeking to join them. Many are also able to exercise family reunification rights that could provide visas to hundreds of thousands of people.

    Short of addressing the roots of the problem in Syria, the EU is largely helpless to stop this mass migration once it is under way. Some European countries are taking unilateral actions -- for example, Serbia, Hungary, and Slovenia have erected barriers on their borders. Yet these measures are ineffective at the moment (e.g., refugees can bypass the barriers by going through the Czech Republic and Poland), and they risk shattering the Schengen Area.

    Massively increasing refugee-related funding to Syria's neighbors will not halt the flow to Europe either. The EU's welfare system is too strong a magnet for poor migrants, as is the promise of safety and, perhaps, a passport.

    Europe's Paradoxical Policy

    Interestingly, European countries have authorized very few Syrian immigration requests from foreign consulates, yet have legalized almost all refugees who managed to reach their shores through other means. In doing so, Europe is actually encouraging illegal immigration.

    syrian refugees

    If refugees who arrived by such means had no chance of being legalized, they would be less likely to attempt the journey. The EU should therefore consider reserving residency permits for those who apply from neighboring countries.

    Unofficially, the subsidies that the EU grants to adjacent nonmember states under the European Neighborhood Policy are conditioned on effective border control and a commitment to take back illegal immigrants.

    This may explain why the Syrian refugee flow across the Strait of Gibraltar is so low (around 5,000 in 2015) -- unlike Turkey, whose EU accession process has been roiled by controversy for years, Morocco is more dependent on European trade and therefore quite serious about its various legal obligations to the union.

    In the end, the best way to prevent mass refugee flows into Europe is to address the roots of the problem in Syria, assuming it is not already too late. Turkey is refusing new refugees even if they are in an awful situation on the other side of the border, partly to avoid helping the Russian counterinsurgency strategy.

    Western countries could adopt a similar policy, but only if they are willing to alleviate the resultant humanitarian crisis. Such considerations bring the idea of implementing a safe haven to protect civilians in northern and southern Syria back to the forefront of the debate.

    Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, is a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute.

    SEE ALSO: The battle for Aleppo is at the center of the Syrian chessboard

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    Saudi military spokesman Ahmed Al-Assiri

    On February 9, Saudi deputy crown prince and defense minister Muhammad bin Salman visited military units in the southwestern province of Jizan, along the border with Yemen, posing with special forces soldiers and visiting injured troops in a field hospital.

    On February 11, wearing his trademark black thawb and red-and-white-checkered headdress, MbS, as he is known, was at NATO headquarters in Brussels for a meeting of the international coalition to counter the Islamic State (IS).

    The next day, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, the military advisor to MbS, said the kingdom had made an "irreversible decision" to send ground troops to fight IS in Syria.

    Saudi media also revealed plans for an imminent major military exercise "in the northern region," described as "a clear message to Iran and the countries in the region that [Iran] supports that any hostile intentions and actions will be firmly dealt with."

    Assessing Saudi Priorities

    While one possible interpretation of the news reports would suggest increasing Saudi military self-confidence and capabilities, the statements convey some confusion about the kingdom's priorities. What's more important? The Houthi rebellion in Yemen? The Islamic State in Syria? Or countering Iran?

    MbS, the thirty-year-old favorite son of King Salman, is often seen as the architect of the Yemen war. Correspondingly, his trip to the front two days before heading to Europe possibly cast doubt on the seriousness of the Saudis' proposed involvement in Syria, ostensibly against IS, though more likely using that role as a cover to help the anti-Assad rebels.

    Just over a year after taking on the defense portfolio, MbS's paramount position in Saudi decision making is unquestioned, but his overweening ambition may transcend Saudi capabilities. The recent mocking comment by an Iranian military commander about the Saudi offer to intervene in Syria may be at least partially a valid criticism.

    mohammed bin salman and king abdullah

    Historically, Saudi Arabia's military prowess has seldom reflected the huge sums spent on defense, including some of the world's most advanced weapons systems. Organizationally, the ruling House of Saud, wary of the Arab world's propensity for military coups, has kept the army, navy, and air force at a distance, seeding the officer ranks with princes to protect against coup plots while preferring loyalty over competence in top commanders.

    In the capital, Riyadh, the Saudi Royal Guard Regiment is entrusted with the royal family's physical security, while the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG) and various arms of paramilitary forces controlled by the Ministry of Interior provide overlapping layers of protection. During past times of crisis, incompatible communications systems have sometimes resulted in elements of dysfunctionality.

    The Saudi intervention in Yemen was initially dubbed Operation Decisive Storm, an unfortunate labeling because the action has been less than decisive. Even Operation Restoring Hope, as the offensive was renamed four weeks after it began last March, now sounds rather forlorn given aid agencies' warnings of a humanitarian crisis and continuing civilian casualties, some of the most recent blamed on faulty cluster bombs supplied by the United States to the Royal Saudi Air Force.

    With this background established, the status of current and likely Saudi military commitments is as follows:

    Yemen. According to General Asiri, in a February 8 video-briefing with journalists and analysts in Washington DC, government forces, supported by the Saudi-led coalition, are now thirty to forty kilometers from the capital, Sana. The government forces, he claimed, control 85 percent of the country, but even while saying the advance on Sana would happen "soon," he emphasized that the conflict had no military solution.

    Saudi troops walk at their base in Yemen's southern port city of Aden September 28, 2015. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

    Challenged to counter the perception that Saudi Arabia was losing in Yemen, General Asiri asked for time, pointing out, for comparison, that the U.S. Army needed time in Afghanistan. While expressing hope that the rebellious Houthi tribes "would, inshallah, give up," the Saudi officer also remarked on the destabilizing role played by former president and onetime Saudi ally Ali Abdullah Saleh, who still has the loyalty of Republican Guard units and an arsenal of artillery, fighter jets and tanks, as well as "300 Scud missiles."

    At least ten of these missiles, aimed at targets in Saudi Arabia's southwest, including the giant air base at Khamis Mushait, have been shot down with U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles.

    Two weeks earlier, at another DC briefing, a senior Western official intimately involved in Yemen had questioned whether Sana could be retaken this year. The battlefield was at a "dynamic stalemate," with pro-government forces bogged down outside the city of Taizz -- although General Asiri described the siege of Taizz as having been broken. However, the official still voiced confidence in the developing United Nations process to ease the transition back to a legitimate government.

    The UN has so far hosted two meetings in Switzerland, with a third on the horizon. A Saudi redline is that the kingdom cannot be seen to lose, but neither does it have the capacity, the official judged, to stabilize the country. Meanwhile, contrary to announcements in Riyadh, Saudi dead and wounded have been "in the hundreds," and even the smaller but more capable United Arab Emirates (UAE) forces have lost "a lot" of soldiers.

    Al-Qaeda and IS forces operate in parts of southern Yemen supposedly liberated by the Saudi-led coalition, and in the north, Houthi forces have killed more than ninety civilians and coalition soldiers in shelling and border skirmishes. The Saudis describe the Houthis as being Iran-backed, but the Western official termed Iran's involvement with the Houthis as merely "supportive" or "sympathetic."

    Yemeni fighters

    Syria. For much of the last year, Saudi military efforts have been focused on Yemen rather than Syria, but on January 11, U.S. secretary of defense Ash Carter said that in recent weeks the Saudi air force "had resumed its participation in airstrikes" against IS targets in Syria. The flights are reportedly using Turkey's Incirlik Air Base.

    Saudi special forces and their UAE counterparts were also expected to be deployed -- until the February 12 announcement of a "cessation of hostilities" due to start February 19, a consequence of the diplomatic efforts pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Until now, Saudi involvement has been limited to training and equipping Syrian opposition groups at camps in Jordan.

    Exercise in the northern region. Dubbed North Thunder, the exercise, described as "the largest military maneuvers in the region's history," is being conducted out of the Saudi military city of Hafr al-Batin, near the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders. Forces from twenty Arab, Muslim-majority, and "friendly" nations are taking part, from Egypt and Pakistan to Mauritania and Mauritius.

    A report in the English-language daily Arab News quoted unnamed military experts as saying the next threat to the Gulf states will likely come in this region "after Iran demographically occupies Iraq and uses that country as its military arm to meddle in the affairs of neighboring countries and drain Gulf states' resources." One analyst said the three main goals of the exercise were "to protect the joint security of the Gulf, Arab and Islamic states, increase combat readiness and coordinate joint operations between participating forces."

    A Saudi soldier fires a mortar towards Houthi movement position, at the Saudi border with Yemen April 21, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

    The list of countries taking part is interesting in that Egypt and Pakistan both declined a Saudi request last year to become militarily involved in Yemen. Also involved is Oman, which has recently avoided open expressions of diplomatic support for Riyadh, although its participation may derive from its involvement in the Gulf Cooperation Council's standing Peninsula Shield force.

    Royal Family Politics

    Few doubt the intense rivalry in the House of Saud between Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, or MbN, and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, respectively the notional intended successor and successor-in-waiting to the aging King Salman. The hallmark of MbN, who commands the Interior Ministry forces, is caution, which sits oddly with MbS's hyperactivity.

    The balance tilts toward MbN when the large paramilitary forces of SANG, commanded by Prince Mitab bin Abdullah, seen as a close ally of MbN, are taken into account. Supposedly at the center of decision making on military matters is the Political and Security Council, presided over by MbN, although photos of the meetings suggest MbS is the dominant personality at such gatherings.

    Barack Obama Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef

    MbN seems to have little power over either the Yemen war or Saudi diplomacy in Syria. And the so-called Islamic Military Alliance that the kingdom announced in December, comprising thirty-four Islamic countries, appears to be the brainchild of MbS. (A meeting of the alliance's defense ministers to complete arrangements is slated for late March or early April.)

    Along with the sense that Saudi military capabilities are being stretched, a growing perception holds that the MbN versus MbS tensions are unsustainable within the Saudi power structure.

    Once considered countervailing equals, the Saudi military is emerging as preeminent -- at least in political terms -- compared with the more numerical Interior Ministry forces and the tribally recruited National Guard. When political rivals each control their own armies, tensions are increased rather than eased.

    Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute.

    SEE ALSO: Turkish official: 'We want a ground operation' in Syria

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    People carry medical supplies found under the rubble of a destroyed Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital hit by missiles in Marat Numan, Idlib province, Syria, February 16, 2016.

    The Syrian envoy to the United Nations has accused French charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of being a front for French intelligence operating in Syria, French newspaper Le Monde reports. 

    Bashar Jaafari made the comments after a missile strike destroyed an MSF-operated hospital in the Idlib province of Syria on Monday, an attack in which at least 11 people died. 

    "The so-called hospital was installed without any prior consultation with the Syrian government by the so-called French network called MSF which is a branch of the French intelligence operating in Syria," Bashar Jaafari said, according to AFP.

    "They assume the full consequences of the act because they did not consult with the Syrian government," Jaafari told reporters following a UN Security Council meeting. "They did not operate with the Syrian government's permission."

    Both Russia and the US-led coalition have been blamed for the strike with both denying any involvement.

    Jaafari repeated claims that the US was responsible for the attack and asserted that the Syrian government had "credible information" backing those accusations. 

    French Ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre, immediately condemned the Syrian ambassador's "revolting remarks... which showed once again his true face," AFP reported.

    MSF's Head of Mission Massimiliano Rebaudengo said that destruction of the hospital left around 40,000 people without access to medical services in a conflict zone.

    Still image taken from video shows heavy smoke rising from a location said to be a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) supported hospital in Marat al Numan, Idlib, Syria

    "The destruction on the MSF supported facility appears to be a deliberate attack on a health structure," Rebaudengo said. 

    MSF was founded in Paris in 1971 and now consists worldwide of 24 associations, bound together as MSF International, which is based in Switzerland.

    The organisation describes itself as "an international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, natural disasters and exclusion from healthcare."  

    Business Insider has approached MSF for comment and will update this post if we hear back.

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    Buildings which were damaged during the security operations and clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants, are pictured in Sur district of Diyarbakir, Turkey February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

    The rapid advance of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, taking advantage of Russian air strikes to seize territory near the Turkish border, has infuriated Ankara and threatened to drive a wedge between NATO allies.

    Washington has long seen the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its YPG military wing as its best chance in the battle against Islamic State in Syria - to the chagrin of fellow NATO member Turkey, which sees the group as terrorists and fears it will stir up greater unrest among its own Kurdish minority.

    Russian bombing has transformed the five-year-old Syrian civil war in recent weeks, turning the momentum decisively in favor of Moscow's ally President Bashar al-Assad.

    The Syrian army has come within 25 km (15 miles) of the Turkish border and says it aims to seal it off altogether, closing the main lifeline into rebel territory for years and recapturing Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war.

    Meanwhile, the YPG has exploited the situation, seizing ground from other Syrian opposition groups in the area.

    Washington says it does not believe the Kurds are coordinating directly with Moscow. But the YPG's advance may represent a masterstroke by Russia, which could benefit from any discord between NATO allies Turkey and the United States.

    YPG

    "Now this is the YPG's dilemma: Will it continue with America or Russia? The consequences of this strategic choice will influence Syria's future, as well as the ongoing clashes in Turkey," said Metin Gurcan, an independent security analyst and retired Turkish military officer.

    Turkey has shelled YPG positions inside Syria for four straight days. Ankara sees the militia as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency for autonomy in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.

    Turkey also portrays the Kurds as a pawn of Russia. Relations between the former Cold War rivals hit a low last year after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria.

    Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters take up positions inside a damaged building in al-Vilat al-Homor neighborhood in Hasaka city, as they monitor the movements of Islamic State fighters who are stationed in Ghwayran neighborhood in Hasaka city, Syria July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    Turkey now accuses Russia of deliberately targeting civilians in Syria, including hospitals struck this week, in what it calls a "war crime" to depopulate territory ahead of a government advance. Moscow denies this and accuses Turkey of covertly supporting Syrian jihadist militant groups.

    The United States, which has supported the Kurdish fighters elsewhere in battle against Islamic State, has called for the YPG to stop actions that would heighten friction in northern Syria. It has also urged Ankara to stop shelling YPG positions.

    Washington has seen no evidence that the YPG are cooperating with the Russians, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a briefing this week.

    Decades of repression

    Kurdish members of the Self-Defense Forces stand near the Syrian-Turkish border in the Syrian city of al-Derbasiyah during a protest against the operations launched in Turkey by government security forces against the Kurds, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi SaidSome 30 million Kurds are estimated to live in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and in Syria. Syria's Kurds are the largest ethnic minority and suffered decades of repression under President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him.

    Under the Damascus regime, Kurds were forbidden from learning their own language, frequently evicted from their land and even denied full citizenship. Their region is home to a chunk of Syria's estimated 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil reserves, but Kurds enjoyed little benefit.

    Now, Kurds have started to carve out a fiefdom in the north of fragmenting Syria, similar to the autonomy enjoyed by their kin in northern Iraq.

    "Russia is using this instrument to put Turkey in a difficult position," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this week, vowing to prevent the YPG from expanding its territory.

    In the early stages of Syria's civil war, there were signs Turkey was willing to work with the PYD and other Kurdish groups if they met three demands: remain resolutely opposed to Assad, vow not to seek autonomy through violence or before the wider conflict was resolved, and pose no threat to Turkey.

    "We have no problem with their aspirations ... What we do not want from any group is that they use this situation opportunistically to impose their will by force," a senior Turkish government official told Reuters in August 2013, days after PYD co-chair Saleh Muslim was invited to Istanbul for talks.

    Relations sour

    A Kurdish refugee girl from the Syrian town of Kobani sits at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province February 2, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

    But relations soon deteriorated, reaching a nadir in late 2014, when Islamic State fighters besieged the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border for four months as Turkish tanks looked on from surrounding hills.

    Turkey allowed Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces through its territory to help defend the town, but its failure to intervene directly in support of the YPG, even as a U.S.-led coalition carried out air strikes against Islamic State, infuriated Kurds in both Syria and Turkey.

    That added to pressure on the Turkish government's relationship with its own Kurds. PKK attacks on Turkish security forces last year helped put an end to a more than two-year ceasefire between the government and the insurgents, and the once-dormant conflict within Turkey has since stayed hot.

    A Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter walks near a wall, which activists said was put up by Turkish authorities, on the Syria-Turkish border in the western countryside of Ras al-Ain, Syria January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi SaidWary of an escalation, Washington has urged all parties to focus on the "common threat" of Islamic State, calling on Turkey to cease cross-border artillery fire and on the YPG not to seize new territory from groups that Turkey supports.

    Turkey has repeatedly criticized the United States for its position, saying that Washington should deem the Syrian Kurds terrorists, as it does with the PKK, and halt support.

    The Syrian Kurdish militia has not explained the aim of its latest advance but a source told Reuters on Jan. 28 it planned to seize the stretch of border held by Islamic State east of Azaz - the only part of the frontier still in the hands of the jihadist group.

    But the YPG's advance into territory held by other rebel groups looks likely to continue for now, causing headaches for Washington as it tries to manage its strategic relationship with Turkey and check Russia's influence in the region.

    "The YPG is pushing as far as it can.… (Its) focus right now is making the most of its momentum," said Gurcan, the analyst. "This has put the U.S. in a very bad position."

    (Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley and Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul; Warren Strobel in Washington; Tom Perry in Beirut and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; writing by Daren Butler; editing by David Dolan, Nick Tattersall and Peter Graff)

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    U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference after the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Rancho Mirage, California February 16, 2016.  Obama and Southeast Asian leaders turned their attention to China on Tuesday on the second day of a summit intended to improve commercial links and provide a united front on maritime disputes with Beijing.   REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

    US President Barack Obama was asked during a Tuesday news conference whether he still thought Russia had gotten into a "quagmire" in Syria, in light of Russian-supported regime gains in the country.

    Obama was also confronted over whether the US would step up its assistance to Western-backed rebels to prevent the impending fall of Aleppo, the country's largest city, to Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.

    Finally, he was asked to respond to criticisms that Russian President Vladimir Putin had "outfoxed" him in sending troops to Syria, now that Russian airpower has helped the Assad regime win back vital territory.

    Obama replied that he thought the Russian intervention in the country was still a sign of Moscow's weakness — and that he thought Putin had made a strategic commitment in Syria that Russia would not be able to sustain.

    "If somebody's strong, you don't have to send in your army to prop up your ally," Obama said of Russia's support for the Assad regime. "You send in your army when the horse you're backing isn't effective."

    Obama noted that about three-quarters of Syrian territory was still under the control of non-regime militant groups, and he opined that it was "not stopping anytime soon"— an implicit reference to the troubles Assad faces even if he manages to retake Aleppo and possibly an admission that the fall of the city won't change the US' approach to the country's civil war.

    Obama said Russia's real quagmire was its long-term investment in a country that it could not stabilize without what Obama said would amount to a "long-term military occupation."

    "The question is how can we stop the suffering, stabilize the region, stop this massive out-migration of refugees ... end the violence, stop the bombing of schools and hospitals and innocent civilians, stop creating a safe haven for ISIS, and there's nothing that's happened over the last several weeks that points to those issues being solved," Obama said.

    "And that is what I mean by a quagmire," he added.

    aleppo map

    Obama's answer revealed a low level of confidence in efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war diplomatically. Last week, a group of international stakeholders that included the US and Russia announced a timeline for a "cessation of hostilities" and the negotiation of a cease-fire.

    In addition to his comment that he saw "nothing that's happened over the last several weeks" pointing to a solution to the conflict's underlying issues, Obama said opposition forces were unlikely to respect a planned cessation if Russia didn't halt its bombing campaign.

    "If Russia continues indiscriminate bombing of the sort that we've seeing, it's fair to say we're not going to see any take-up by the opposition," Obama said.

    russia airstrike syriaObama's comments also seemed to assume that the Russian leadership has a potential self-interest in a negotiated solution to the Syria conflict.

    "The real question we should be asking is: What is it what Russia thinks it gains if it gets a country that's been completely destroyed as an ally that it now has to perpetually spend billions of dollars to prop up?" Obama said.

    Russia might not need to make this kind of a long-term commitment if it succeeds in wiping out the country's non-jihadist opposition — a possibility if Aleppo falls.

    And Russia's behavior in Syria suggests the Kremlin still believes that its level of commitment is a worthwhile strategic trade-off — and that a weakened Assad regime advances Moscow's regional and global position more than a negotiated transition of power.

    SEE ALSO: A new peace deal for Syria effectively gives Russia and Assad 'a license to kill'

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    © Matjaz Krivic   Digging the Future

    The winners of the 59th annual World Press Photo Contest were announced Thursday. 

    A total of 41 photographers from 21 countries were ultimately selected for their winning photos out of a total of 82,951 submitted photos from 5,775 photographers. 

    The pictures, selected for their beauty, news value, and overall composure, were divided into eight broad categories.

    Each category was then further divided into a singles category, for stand-alone photographs, and a story category for a series. Each category had three winners. 

    We have presented our favorites of the selection below, and you can see the entire gallery here

    Warning, some of the photos are graphic.

    SEE ALSO: The 50 best US military pictures of 2015

    World Press Photo of the year 2015 and Spot News Singles 1st prize: Warren Richardson, Australia — A man passes a baby through the fence at the Serbia/Hungary border in Röszke, Hungary, 28 August 2015.



    Spot News Singles, 2nd prize: Corentin Fohlen, France — Demonstration against terrorism in Paris, after a series of five attacks occurred across the Île-de-France region, beginning at the headquarters for satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Paris, France, 11 January 2015.



    Spot News Singles, 3rd prize: Niclas Hammarström, Sweden — The body of a victim killed in gang-related violence. This was the fourth gang-related killing on the same street in one night. Police had no witnesses. San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 4 March 2015.



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    ISIS

    Faced with a cash shortage in its so-called caliphate, the Islamic State group has slashed salaries across the region, asked Raqqa residents to pay utility bills in black market American dollars, and is now releasing detainees for a price of $500 a person.

    The extremists who once bragged about minting their own currency are having a hard time meeting expenses, thanks to coalition airstrikes and other measures that have eroded millions from their finances since last fall. Having built up loyalty among militants with good salaries and honeymoon and baby bonuses, the group has stopped providing even the smaller perks: free energy drinks and Snickers bars.

    Necessities are dwindling in its urban centers, leading to shortages and widespread inflation, according to exiles and those still suffering under its rule. Interviews gathered over several weeks included three exiles with networks of family and acquaintances still in the group's stronghold in Raqqa, residents in Mosul, and analysts who say IS is turning to alternative funding streams, including in Libya.

    In Raqqa, the group's stronghold in Syria, salaries have been halved since December, electricity is rationed, and prices for basics are spiraling out of reach, according to people exiled from the city.

    "Not just the militants. Any civil servant, from the courts to the schools, they cut their salary by 50 percent," said a Raqqa activist now living in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, who remains in close contact with his native city. But that apparently wasn't enough close the gap for a group that needs money to replace weapons lost in airstrikes and battles, and pays its fighters first and foremost. Those two expenses account for two-thirds of its budget, according to an estimate by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a researcher with the Middle East Forum who sources Islamic State documents.

    islamic state weapons

    Within the last two weeks, the extremist group started accepting only dollars for "tax" payments, water and electric bills, according to the Raqqa activist, who asked to be identified by his nom de guerre Abu Ahmad for his safety. "Everything is paid in dollars," he said. His account was bolstered by another ex-Raqqa resident, who, like Ahmad, also relies on communications with a network of family and acquaintances still in the city.

    Al-Tamimi came across a directive announcing the fighters' salary cuts in Raqqa: "On account of the exceptional circumstances the Islamic State is facing, it has been decided to reduce the salaries that are paid to all mujahedeen by half, and it is not allowed for anyone to be exempted from this decision, whatever his position."

    Those circumstances include the dramatic drop in global prices for oil — once a key source of income — airstrikes that have targeted cash stores and oil infrastructure, supply line cuts, and crucially, the Iraqi government's decision to stop paying civil servants in territory controlled by the extremists.

    A Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in Aleppo province, where IS controls major towns including Manbij, Jarablus and al-Bab, is also putting pressure on IS. Government troops and allied militiamen have advanced toward the town, considered an IS bastion, leading many militants to send their families to Raqqa.

    air strike isis

    An exile from al-Bab said low-level fighters there have begun to grumble, and townspeople have overheard Islamic State officials discussing crippling airstrikes on oil infrastructure in Syria and Iraq and the cutoff of supply lines and revenue sources. The resident, who asked only that his first name Oussama be used because he still has family in the city, said dozens of residents of al-Bab have fled, ignoring orders from the extremists.

    "You can sense the frustration, their morale is down," Oussama said of the fighters.

    A former Raqqa resident now living in Beirut said Syrians abroad are sending remittances in dollars to cover skyrocketing prices for vegetables and sugar. The resident, whose wife and baby still live in the city, did not want his name used for their safety. One of the other ex-residents, now living in Gaziantep, Turkey, said the road to Mosul was cut off late last year, and prices have risen swiftly — gas is up 25 percent, meat up nearly 70 percent, and sugar prices have doubled.

    In Iraq, where Islamic State has slowly been losing ground over the past year, the Iraqi government in September cut off salaries to government workers within territory controlled by the extremists, after months of wavering about the humanitarian costs paid by those trapped in the region. Iraqi officials estimate that Islamic State taxed the salaries at rates ranging from 20 to 50 percent, and analysts and the government now estimate a loss of $10 million minimum each month. Between the loss of that money — and the U.S.-led bombing of cash warehouses — American officials are optimistic that the effect could diminish Islamic State's wealth.

    "We are seeing our efforts having some effect on their financial flows. And it's difficult to get a handle on just how much because of the different illicit ways in which they are handling their finances but you've seen the efforts that our military has taken to take out cash storage sites, and I think it is our hope and expectation that that will have demonstrable effects. On what order of magnitude, I think it's difficult to say," said Lisa Monaco, President Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser.

    In the Iraqi city of Fallujah, fighters who once made $400 a month aren't being paid at all and their food rations have been cut to two meals a day, according to a resident. The account of the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of death at the hands of extremists, was supported by that of another family trapped in Fallujah that said inhabitants can only leave the city if they pay $1,000 — a sum well beyond the means of most in the Sunni-majority city that was the first in Iraq to fall to Islamic State in 2014.

    apache 3rd brigade fallujahIS is also allowing Fallujah residents to pay $500 for the release of a detainee, the family in Fallujah told the AP, saying that they believed the new policy was put in place to help the group raise money — a system akin to bail.

    Mosul residents contacted by AP say IS has begun fining citizens who do not adhere to its strict dress code, rather than flogging them as before. The residents say they believe this is in response to financial problems in part because the group has already confiscated anything valuable, namely cars and other goods that are later resold in Syria.

    American officials have said fighters are more constricted in their movements and spending than they have been in months. But the group still controls a vast amount of territory, and they say the Syrian government has made few gains against the extremists themselves. Islamic State, meanwhile, keeps up its deadly combination of threats and payments for anyone wavering in their support.

    The Soufan Group, in a Jan. 27 analysis, said the group is looking for alternative funding streams in Libya, where it is under less pressure — and doesn't face airstrikes. And fighters still get their food baskets and free electricity — even if, as one of the Raqqa exiles said, they no longer get Snickers bars and energy drinks.

    "I don't think this is fatal for IS," said al-Tamimi. "I still don't see internal revolt as what's going to be the outcome. It's more like a scenario of gradual decay and decline."

    (Associated Press writer Philip Issa in Beirut contributed reporting.)

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    A Turkish soldier stands guard near the site of an explosion in Ankara, Turkey February 17, 2016.

    Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced Thursday that the People's Protections Unit (YPG), a Kurdish militia based in northern Syria, was responsible for Wednesday's bombing in Ankara that killed 28 people.

    "Yesterday's attack was directly targeting Turkey and the perpetrator is the YPG and the divisive terrorist organization PKK. All necessary measures will be taken against them," Davutoglu said in a televised speech.

    If Ankara has evidence that the YPG — the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) — was behind the attack, it has not yet been released. A YPG leader, moreover, later denied responsibility for the blast and warned Ankara against launching a ground incursion into Syria.

    Experts tend to agree, however, that blaming Syrian Kurds for the bombing was likely a way for Turkey and its ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to justify its continued attacks on YPG positions in northern Syria — and signal that they will continue.

    "While we have yet to see the supporting evidence, it is clear that the AKP will use the attack to try and erode the support of the United States for Kurdish fighting factions in Syria and to further justify strikes on Kurdish targets," Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider on Thursday.

    He added: "This was undeniably a political gift for the AKP. Their goal has long been to challenge Western ties with the Kurds in Syria. This offers the AKP a justification."

    turkeyAykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, largely agreed.

    "The Turkish government will have greater domestic and international legitimacy in attacking PYD positions in northern Syria," Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament, told Business Insider by email.

    "The bombing will pose a greater challenge to the US policy of differentiating the PYD from the [terrorist] PKK," Erdemir said. "Turkey will continue to produce evidence implicating the PYD in the attack, making it more difficult for the US to continue working with a partner that has allegedly targeted a NATO ally."

    A 'big war'

    Davutoglu's comments are especially poignant given a vow he made earlier this week: The government, he said, will not allow the strategic city of Azaz in northern Syria to fall to Kurdish YPG forces.

    The Kurds have effectively cut off the route Turkey has long used to supply the Syrian rebels it supports in Aleppo with weapons and humanitarian aid. They are also making rapid territorial gains along Turkey's southern border with the help of Russian airstrikes, which Ankara views as a threat to its sovereignty.

    aleppo map

    On Thursday, however, the Kurds raised the stakes further. An envoy of the group to Russia told Bloomberg that a "big war" would break out if Turkey decided to send troops into Syria.

    “Russia will respond if there is an invasion,"Rodi Osman, the head of the Syrian Kurds’ newly opened office in Moscow, said in an interview. "This isn’t only about the Kurds. They will defend the territorial sovereignty of Syria.”

    Russia, for its part, reiterated Thursday that it views "any incursion" into Syria as "illegal."

    Turkey's battle against a YPG-linked Kurdish insurgency in the country's southeast has undoubtedly influenced the government's generally hostile stance toward the Kurds. But Ankara's repeated claim that the YPG is not the West's friend has gained support in light of the Kurds' evolving political and military relationship with Russia in Syria.

    The Obama administration has been struggling to balance its support for the YPG — an unofficial member of the anti-ISIS coalition — with its obligations to Turkey, a member of NATO.

    To the US' chagrin, however, YPG forces further west now appear to be actively coordinating with Russia to recapture territory taken by Syrian rebels fighting forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. That complicates Washington's insistence that supporting the YPG-dominated SDF is key to defeating ISIS.

    Erdemir, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, noted that while the bombing in Ankara would give more "legitimacy" to a Turkish military incursion into Syria, it remains "relatively unlikely in the short term" that Turkey will send ground troops.

    In any case, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Thursday that Turkey will continue to shell YPG positions — ignoring Washington's earlier request that Turkey hold its fire against the US-backed Kurdish forces while it works to "de-escalate" the situation.

    He also issued a veiled threat, likely directed at Washington: "Those who ... back an organization that is the enemy of Turkey, risk losing the title of being a friend of Turkey."

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    Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group.

    See more video by Ian Bremmer about oil, the global economy, politics and the news on his Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ianbremmer

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    Terror groups like ISIS are using social media, religion, money, and violence to recruit thousands of foreigners into their cause.

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    erdogan tayyip turkey

    Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said U.S.-supplied weapons had been used against civilians by a Syrian Kurdish militia group that Ankara blames for a deadly suicide bombing, and said he would talk to President Barack Obama about it later on Friday.

    U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish PYD, which Washington considers a useful ally in the fight against Islamic State, has enraged Turkey and risks driving a wedge between the NATO allies. Turkey sees the group as a terrorist organisation linked to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency on its own soil.

    Erdogan and the Turkish government have said the PYD's armed wing, the YPG, was responsible for a suicide car bomb attack in the administrative heart of the capital, Ankara, on Wednesday which killed 28 people, most of them soldiers.

    Erdogan said he was saddened by the West's refusal to call the PYD and YPG a terrorist group and would explain to Obama by phone how weapons provided by the United States had aided them.

    "I will tell him, look at how and where those weapons you provided were fired," he told reporters in Istanbul.

    "Months ago in my meeting with him (Obama), I told him the U.S. was supplying weapons. Three plane loads arrived, half of them ended up in the hands of Daesh (Islamic State), and half of them in the hands of the PYD," he said.

    "Against whom were these weapons used? They were used against civilians there and caused their deaths."

    A Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter walks near residents who had fled Tel Abyad, as they re-enter Syria from Turkey after the YPG took control of the area, at Tel Abyad town, Raqqa governorate, Syria, June 23, 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

    He appeared to be referring to a U.S. air drop of 28 bundles of military supplies in late 2014 meant for Iraqi Kurdish fighters near the Syrian city of Kobani. Pentagon officials said at the time one had fallen into the hands of Islamic State. The Pentagon later said it had targeted the missing bundle in an air strike and destroyed it.

    Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier accusedthe United States of making conflicting statements about theSyrian Kurdish militia.

    He said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had told him the Kurdish insurgents could not be trusted, in what Cavusoglu said was a departure from Washington's official position.

    kurds syria ypg

    The United States has said it does not consider the YPG a terrorist group. A spokesman for the State Department said on Thursday Washington was not in a position to confirm or denyTurkey's charge the YPG was behind the Ankara bombing.

    The spokesman also called on Turkey to stop its recent shelling of the YPG. The YPG's political arm has denied the group was behind the Ankara attack and said Turkey wasusing it to justify an escalation in fighting in northern Syria.

    (Additional reporting by Daren Butler, Asli Kandemir and David Dolan,; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Dominic Evans, Larry King)

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    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at Villa Taverna in Rome December 14, 2014. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool

    The US has given Russia a vague idea of where its special forces are operating in Syria. But that doesn't guarantee there won't be any future conflicts on the country's increasingly messy battlefield.

    And there's also the possibility that the Russians won't keep the sensitive information to themselves.

    "I don't have any assurances, really, from the Russians," Lt. Gen. Charles Brown, commander of the US Air Forces Central Command, told reporters during a briefing on Thursday.

    "But we told them these are the ... general areas, where we have coalition forces and we don’t want them to strike there because all it's going to do is escalate things. And I don't think the Russians want to escalate against the coalition," he added.

    Brown's comments were the first confirmation from US officials that the US has provided such information to Russia. The US began sending special forces into Syria in December. Their location has been kept publicly secret for security purposes.

    Though the US is operating in Syria to fight the terrorist group ISIS, both by running airstrikes and deploying special forces, Russia became involved in the country's civil war mostly to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad under the guise of fighting ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, or Daesh).

    Experts said that while this coordination with Russia could help protect US troops, the information could also fall into the wrong hands.

    "Given that the Assad regime and ISIS have ways to communicate, I would hope the Russians do not share the information with anyone," Fred Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former special adviser for transition in Syria under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Business Insider in an email.

    Even if Russia did provide certain assurances to the US about protecting such location information, Hof said they would be "worthless."

    "Russian assurances would be worthless in any event, and I would assume that the Russians will share the information with other actors; surely with the Assad regime," Hof said. "Assad, after all, has an air force: the Russians can claim they passed the information to help protect Americans. But Assad also has the ways and means to convey information to ISIS."

    What complicates matters further is the chaotic nature of the Syrian battlefield — rebels are fighting to oust Assad, and jihadist groups like ISIS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are fighting both the moderate rebels and Assad's forces. The US is fighting ISIS, but not Assad. And Russia, a major ally of Syria, says it's fighting ISIS even though it mostly targets anti-Assad rebels.

    Syria map

    "Syria is a very messy battlefield," Michael Kofman, a Russia expert and public-policy fellow at the Wilson Center, told Business Insider. "There’s nothing clean about war."

    And even if Russia knows vaguely where US special forces are located, the information isn't specific enough to eliminate any chance of conflict.

    "If Russia decides to go after after the Islamic State … there's definitely a chance that they could take out US special forces and they won’t know they're there," Kofman said. "The US will tell them a large geographic area … and that's all the Russians are going to get."

    Still, Russia has so far generally avoided areas of Syria where the US is operating, and giving Russia a vague idea of where US special forces are is better than telling them nothing, Kofman said.

    "It would be completely reckless to send your guys there and not do the bare minimum coordination with Russia," he said. "If [there's a conflict], the first question that will be asked here is, 'did you try to coordinate with them at all?’ … If you didn't, then it’s not their fault."

    Hof made a similar assessment.

    "I imagine the reasoning is to deny to the Russians any excuse for bombing American military personnel," he said of the US providing special-forces location information.

    Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook emphasized at the Thursday briefing that the coordination between the US and Russia was done out of an "abundance" of caution.

    "This was done geographical areas writ-large, not specific locations and not times," he said. "... This was a step we took to try to maintain [the operators'] safety in a dangerous situation."

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    humvee surface to air missiles

    BERLIN (Reuters) -

    Moderate Syrian rebels should be supplied with surface-to-air missiles to defend against air strikes, Germany weekly Der Spiegel quoted SaudiForeign Minister Adel al-Jubeir as saying.

    The rebels are under attack from both the Syrian air force and Russian strikes. Jubeir said providing them with the rockets would "enable the moderate opposition to neutralize the regime's helicopters and planes".

    Al-Jubeir repeated his calls for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down in order to enable a political solution to the five-year-long war.

    "The other option is that the war goes on and Assad is being defeated," al-Jubeir said.

    At least 250,000 people have been killed, 11 million made homeless and hundreds of thousands have fled to Europe since the conflict began in 2011.

    Riyadh was still ready to support the U.S.-led coalition against the militant group Islamic State (IS) with special forces on the ground, he said.

    Al-Jubeir rejected any similarities between the Islamist extremist group and Saudi-Arabia's national, conservative interpretation of Islam, the Wahhabism.

    "IS is about as Islamic as the Ku-Klux-Klan is Christian," al-Jubeir said.

    (Reporting by Tina Bellon; writing by Mark Trevelyan)

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